Monday, June 04, 2007

Josh Landis in Syria

I have been reading Landis for over a year. He is predictably pro-Syrian but as an academic expert he brings plenty of critical analysis to anything he writes. His wife is from Syria and her parents live there. He has moved to Damascus for the summer and reporting first-hand on what he sees and hears. Anyone wanting up-to-date information about Syria should read what he Say's.

His first post upon arriving was personal rather than political. It makes for a good introduction to the man and his family.

A long flight on Emirate Airlines brought us in at 4 p.m. Wednesday afternoon. We started our trip at 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning. We knew we were in the Damascus airport when the smokers began to light up in the baggage reclamation area. But a year and a half makes a difference. This time the smokers collected self-consciously around the big holes in the wall where the baggage conveyor belts come through from the outside so that their smoke would blow outside! Progress of sorts. Another small change was that my father-in-law was unable to talk his way past the security personnel and sneak into the baggage reclamation area to greet us. Last time he did. A security upgrade for Damascus airport.

The meeting was joyous. My son, Kendall Shaaban, who is 3 and a half, hid behind me when his grandparents tried to hug him and smother him with kisses, causing some consternation. He pretended not to know them after a year and a half. As soon as we were in the car, however, he began to say "sitti" and "jiddi," much to his grandparents’ delight, which earned him many kisses and cheek pinches. After one night in Damascus, Manar and Shaboula departed with Manar's parents, Abu and Um Firas, up to the village, Bayt al-Murj near Qadmus, which is high in the Coastal Mountains - (We don't say Alawite Mountains any more - at least not if one is Syrian), where it is green and cool. I will follow them Tuesday next.
Last night I had dinner with one of Syria's leading economists, Jihad Yaziji, who puts out the Syria Report, the country's best English language economic digest. His wife Sana cooked up the most delicious roasted eggplant smothered in burnt onions and garlic, cooked wheat, salad, and humus. Not only is Sana a fine cook but she is also an excellent graphic designer who until recently has raced between Damascus and Beirut to do the layout and help publish the Arabic version of Le Monde Diplomatique. They moved from Paris two years ago as part of the growing number of young entrepreneurs who have been bringing their skills and businesses back home and testing the waters of Syria's economic opening. They are happy, even if frustrated by the slow change and managerial chaos of Syrian economic life.

Jihad is convinced that there is a real consumer boom going on in the country. I teased him about his positive attitude because when I left in 2005, he was quite gloomy about Syria's economic prospects. He confessed that perhaps he shouldn't be too upbeat, but then went on to tick off a list of consumer statistics, beginning with the fact that the number of cars registered in Syria has doubled in two years. Cars are still about twice as expensive in Syria as they are in the States, nevertheless, the big drop in prices in 2005 has led people to pull out savings from God knows where. It is not only cars. Most large consumer items have seen big increases in sales. The lowering of tariff barriers among Arab States and Turkey has made many new items affordable and they are pouring into the stores. Jihad insists that Syrians are learning to be competitive, especially in low end production, processed foods, clothing and textiles.

Much, much more at the link. Landis is an easy read and his enthusiasm for everything shows clearly. Lest one think he presents everything through rose-tinted lenses, be sure to scan the comments thread. Plenty of slings and arrows there, but he leaves them for all to read.

The real reason to read Landis it to learn something about Syria and where it fits into the overall picture of the region. Not to put too fine a point on it, the current dictator, Bashar Assad, is no saint, but he is also no one's fool. Taking a page from an American public relations expert, he seems to have told everyone on his team, "It's the economy, stupid!" To speak of Syria is to speak of Bashar. And imagining that he is a cardboard figure who can be easily knocked around is indulging in a serious fantasy.

Today's post is long and comprehensive. Read it slow and pay attention. From what I gather Syria has undergone some important changes recently. This is not to be underestimated since together with Jordan and other countries neighboring Iraq it is hosting a crippling multitude of refugees.

I will begin with my conclusions about the presidential referendum and the many street “hafles” or parties, parades, and festivals that preceded and followed it. I have moved the conclusions to the top because this post is long.

1. Bashar has completed the process of power consolidation begun with the 10th Baath Party Congress of June 2005.

2. He has gained legitimacy in the eyes of Syria’s elites, who are betting on him and seriously considering bringing their capital back to the country. Many, particularly expatriates have yet to do so and are hedging their bets, but many local capitalists have everything they own here. The “Ehsani” expatriates have invested considerable capital in Syria over the last three years but, I believe, are still holding back. (Ehsani is a contributor to Syria Comment. We will see if he agrees.)

3. Everywhere the posters are of Bashar only. He does not share the ground with Nasser, Nasrallah, Basil al-Assad, or his father any longer. Today, it is all about Bashar, who stands alone.

4. The parades exuded “modernity” and professionalism. This is new for Syria. Syrians like it, even if they think way too much money was spent on them. It is the message Bashar al-Assad has worked hard to convey. It is how he is marketed inside Syria. He is staying on message. He is “Mr. Modernizer,” even though the West is trying to convince Syrians that he doesn’t get it, is not new at all, and is just keeping the Assad family in power.

5. Syrian nationalism has largely replaced the old Arabism. The parades were all about Syria, its long history, and many different civilizations, peoples, and varied culture. They were not about Arabs, militarism, or the Baath Party. (Who knows, Bashar may even try to steal Phoenicianism from the Lebanese. God forbid!)

6. Bashar has not stuck a dagger in the Baath Party’s heart, but he has definitely circumscribed its authority.

7. Democracy: Bashar ran his campaign against Iraq and Bush. Many banners extolled “security, safety, and stability” – “al-`amn wal-istiqrar.” This was a no brainer for Syrians. The campaign presented Syria’s choice as being one between Bashar and Bush or between Syria and Iraq. For Syrians, American democracy promotion in the Middle East means following the path of Iraq, Lebanon, or the Palestinian Authority, the three countries that have accepted or been forced to follow the US democracy agenda. Carpenter tried to present democracy as a disembodied magic that one can just import by following certain practices, such as free elections. There is no doubt that many Syrians yearn for more democracy, but they are now well aware of its attendant dangers, especially in a region as troubled by sectarian and ethnic differences, identity crises, and a weak sense of national community.

8. Syrians have not completely made up their minds about this regime. They want to see what will happen to the “reform” process, which could easily be reversed or stall. This is the BIG question. Many hope that following the president’s inauguration on the 17th, there will be a new government nominated quickly. They hope that the president’s new power will be used to confirm his reform agenda. These hopes will probably be dashed, as nothing has happened quickly or with resolution in Syria. There are big interests standing in the way of the 5-year plan. Local industrialists do not want Turkish tariffs to come down, for example. Many businesses depend on protected markets and privileges that the 5-year plan will eliminate. I have heard two contradictory predictions about the reform process made by well-informed people. One is that Dardari, on whom economic reform hopes have been pinned, will be out in 2 to 5 months. The other is that he has the backing of the president and will be given an important role in the future government. This is a sign of the nation’s confusion over the reform process. Many foreign investors are still sitting on their land purchases or have yet to enter the market. Unemployment is still way too high. The Iraqi influx has undercut Syrian employment and driven up prices. Inflation is eating away at the standard of living of ordinary Syrians. The floundering state sector and economic subsidies are sucking off state revenues. Only big foreign investment can balance these negatives. To get this, Bashar must make some big decisions. He seems to have the power now, but will he use it to discipline the privileged few, who have their feet on the brakes?


Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Carpenter made a big to-do in his anti-Syrian press conference about the regime squandering 50 million dollars on the “scam” process. “Seeing the government spend upwards of $50 million or more on this process is an indication of how out of touch really the regime is with its people,” he explained.

Capitalist Sponsorship of the Regime

This is an entirely new phenomenon in Syria: capitalist rather than Baath Party sponsorship of the regime. We have seen it emerge only in the last five years. It took on a particularly striking form after Syria’s military withdrawal from Lebanon, when Syria began copying the Cedar Revolution’s notions of “hafles” or street parties. Rich Syrians were asked to get out a display of support. Throughout the referendum process, local street parties were sponsored at almost all the major street corners and parks in center city. There were tents, music, and young people dancing. Food and sweets were handed out to passers by. Rich businessmen advertised their sponsorship of the hafles openly in order to get maximum credit. The music blared until the wee hours of the morning. All city residents were delighted when they finally came to an end; they could sleep. As many said, “Enough already! This is too much. We get it.” Syrians did not misunderstand the message. They understood that the state was declaring its presence and proclaiming its strength and ability to mobilize the elites.

Many Syrians have explained to me that one of the reasons it went on so long was because the message was directed at the outside world. Assad was telling the West: “Istuflu” or “stick it.” “You think I am ready to collapse or weak? You are wrong.”

Carpenter argues that the pageantry of the referendum is a clear sign of the President’s illegitimacy. To prove this he referred to a Web poll carried out by a small exile group, the results of which indicated 80% of its readers voted against Bashar al-Asad. Presidential referendums in Syria, as in much of the third world, are not about the democratic process, however. They are about a show of “za`ama” or authority and the backing of national elites.

In Syria, the recent referendum demonstrated that the moneyed national elites are willing to back the president, not only with their cash, but also with institutional resources.


“Failure is an orphan, and success has a hundred fathers,” as the saying goes. Bashar is a success. Big money is betting on him as it never has before, to which the whole country is witness. A good source told me, “businessmen didn’t know that the hafles and activities surrounding the referendum would be so big, so many, and last so long. It wasn’t all planned. A dynamic established itself and the moneybags of Syria felt compelled to jump in and outdo their competition.”

Bashar’s ability to navigate the very dangerous obstacles that have been thrown up before him since the US invasion of Iraq is astounding. Almost every Syrian I have met over the last week has reiterated this truth, some with considerable satisfaction, made all the more manifest because I am an American from Bush country. They are impressed with Bashar the politician, even as they express their disapproval of “the system” and its corruption.

Landis is Daniel in the lion's den. In many ways his reports are as important as those of journalists Totten and Yon. I'm sure that as soon as he has spun out enough rope, Tony Badran will be out to hang him, but in the meantime I'm enjoying Josh Landis' reports.

Totten and Landis, incidentally, are not on the same page. Totten predicts a war with Syria.

And Tony Badran can hardly speak a word about Landis or his peers without sneering.

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